Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull Racing, is the archetypical racer: having worked his way through the ranks from karting to F3000 (then a single step below Formula 1) via Formula Renault and F3, he switched to (own) team management at age 25, winning the teams classification in 2001, and claiming back-to-back doubles in 2002/3. In the process he moved ever closer to Red Bull.
When the drinks company purchased Jaguar Racing (formerly Stewart) ahead of the 2004 season, Horner was a shoo-in as team principal, a position he managed honourably ever since – as four double F1 titles via Sebastian Vettel attest. In the process he scored coup: Persuading Adrian Newey, arguably F1’s best-ever designer, to throw his skills into the Red Bull pot. He has stayed with Horner.
That the man from Warwickshire always was going to make it big in motor racing – albeit not as racing driver – was clear way back in 1992, when first I laid eyes on a budding Formula Renault driver. He arrived at a test session in a pristine Renault road car (a 19 if I recall correctly) with the words “Christian Horner Racing” stencilled on the door. He was immaculately attired, too.
At the time I was assisting a youngster in raising funds to make his way through the same category. He arrived in ripped denims and tatty T, driving a grubby Fiat Uno that was seldom treated to wash or vacuum. Said driver disappeared without a trace, despite having won a junior title the year before. The moral is clear…
Christian (44) and I sit in the Red Bull Racing hospitality during the final day of testing. Our interview had been scheduled for the previous day, but a meeting called, and our chat was postponed. Ever the professional, Christian offered to rearrange – even fitting the slot between other interviews I had scheduled.
We open with the thorny question of engine contracts for 2019-onwards. It is no secret that the teams’ relationship Renault has been fraught despite their 2010-13 successes. Indeed, back in 2015/6 Red Bull pushed every which way to obtain an alternate power unit supplier. Mercedes and Ferrari understandably shunned his advances, and Honda enjoyed an exclusive deal with McLaren.
In the aftermath of some acrimonious exchanges Red Bull came within a whisker of sitting with a chassis designed by arguably the best F1 car designer of all time, but having no power unit to stick in the back. The FIA subsequently introduced regulations to cover such eventualities, decreeing that teams nominate their engine suppliers by May 1 of the preceding season, failing which the governing body would step in.
Asked on the first day F1 2018 testing whether Red Bull Racing could follow sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso into the Honda fold – the Japanese company split with McLaren after a fractious three years – Horner indicated that they had the luxury of being able to choose between Honda and Renault, come August.
The French company’s team boss, Cyril Abiteboul, told the media the decision would need to be taken by May 1st. So where does Red Bull Racing stand in this regard?
“Well,” he says, “that’s different to the conversation we’ve had with Renault. Obviously they’re keen to know sooner rather than later. The reality is we have until the summer break to make a decision. Obviously manufacturers seek the earliest date, manufacturers are obviously supposed to indicate to the FIA, but as we saw last year with McLaren and Toro Rosso, it’s not a hard and fast rule.
“One way or another we’ll have an engine next year, and the great thing is that for the first time in a long time we’ve got a choice.”
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McLaren and Renault agreed terms in the wake of the Honda split, in mid-September, and as their testing niggles proved, that made for tight timing. What is Red Bull’s absolutely final deadline?
“Ideally we’d like to make that decision prior to August, but end of July is probably the cut-off,” with Horner adding that the overriding criterion would be out-and-out performance.
So no commercial considerations such as price, or a relationship similar to that which McLaren enjoyed (?) with Honda, which saw the Japanese company pump in an estimated $50m per annum in support, over and above a full package of free power units?
“Our primary goal is to first of all identify what is the best product for the short, medium and longer term. That is the primary focus; everything else is subjective for the moment…”
Could RBR, as the senior team in the Red Bull family, inherit STR’s “works” engine status. There is a precedent: in 2007 Toro Rosso was persuaded to take Ferrari engines to enable Red Bull to adopt Renault power without finding itself in breach of contract.
“We’re not going to disclose contractual commitments,” Horner says cagily, “but it’s obviously good news for the crew that Toro Rosso are working with Honda. The relationship is going very well, and it gives us a front row seat to see how things are progressing and evolving.”
I suggest that there could be conflict looming given Red Bull’s recently announced title sponsorship deal with Aston Martin and the Honda’s NSX sports car, which is priced at Aston Martin’s entry price point, but Horner is adamant they compete in different areas. Fair enough, if all parties see it that way.
“We’ve seen Honda enjoy (that word again…) a relationship with McLaren for the past three years,” the implication being that certain models in McLaren’s sports car range is priced similarly to the NSX. “Aston Martin are very aware in our thought process, and what our options are. They’re supportive of us having the best power unit and the most competitive package possible.”
Talk of Aston Martin provides the perfect opportunity to switch to the subject of post-2020 engines. The British sports car maker is known to be investigating an F1 engine subject to suitable pricing, timing and specifications. What are the chances of Aston Martin’s wings appearing on the tappet covers rather than simply the airbox?
“I think we’re getting very tight now, and I think for me in the next month or so there needs to be clarity [on the direction of the regulations]. We’ve got a couple of manufacturers that look like they’re sitting on the fence, eager to come in, whether it be Aston, or rumours of Porsche as well.
“Like all these things it depends on the rules, and this is where I think [commercial rights holder] Liberty [Media] are quite clear on what they want to do. They need to find alignment with the FIA, and then it needs to be communicated quickly because otherwise we’re going to run out of time.”
Is there still enough time for Aston Martin to do an engine?
“Just. Another couple of months and you’re out of time.” F1, take that as a warning.
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The word in the paddock was that Liberty CEO Chase Carey – he of the glorious moustache – had visited all teams (or at the very least held meetings with some) during the winter break to discuss commercial terms for the post-2020 period, when current covenants expire. Apparently Chase committed to tabling Liberty’s offers by end-March, so did the American visit Red Bull Racing, too?
Horner circumvents the direct question, but offers his take on the situation.
“I feel a little sorry for Chase,” he says. “I think he’s got a clear idea in his head, but he’s trying to get all his planets aligned, which is proving to be quite a bit harder than he probably envisaged. I think maybe he’s better picking them [the various discussion points] off one by one, rather than trying to group the whole thing together.
“It’s a huge package; commercial [contracts], [sporting and technical] regulations, all of those elements together for 2021. And, of course, his biggest pressure point is the timing of the power unit.
“We’ve all got agreements until the end of 2020, commercially, and the regulations are fixed ‘til then. On the chassis you don’t need as much time, or notice, to change, but the big lead-time item and the big-ticket item is the engine, which is screaming for an answer.”
Is the counter-argument not, though, that the entire package needs to be tabled together given that the regulations affects costs, and costs affect the level of revenues demanded by the teams?
“Yes, [but] I think the problem is that we’ve got some people playing for time; it’s very easy to tie it to commercial to buy time,” he says – an obvious dig at Mercedes and Ferrari, who are pushing for the status quo to remain.
“I think the best that Chase can do is set out his stall, no matter how unpopular it is, whether with the teams, the FIA, whatever, but say ‘This is what our vision for Formula One is, this is what we want to do, if you don’t want to be part of it, look at something else’.”
I try again: Had he given you a date of 31 March, or end of first quarter?
“No, I think the next Strategy [Group] meeting [on 17 April] is going to be a litmus test in terms of what they’re going to do.”
As one would expect from a true-blue racer, Christian is known to have firm ideas about the direction should be taking, so I pose the question: What is your vision for post-2020?
“For me, I would look at what is the DNA of Formula One that gives it the appeal to the huge fan base that it’s had throughout the world, and will refresh the interest of people that have followed the sport previously, but become a bit disillusioned with it. And also encourage the next generation of sports fanatics.
“I think you have to go back to the point of ‘What is sport?’ It is entertainment [we subsequently agree that the entertainment requires a high level of human endeavour]; it is there to entertain the public, and Formula 1 historically has been about exciting cars, gladiatorial drivers, and the drivers need to be the heroes, the icons.
“So I think if you go back to those principles and try and create a formula that promotes the drivers as the heroes, where there is competition, the cars are exciting, loud, fast, challenging. And then of course the promotion of that fits around what the product is.”
Christian is in full flight, hardly pauses for breath. Then he stops, as to though to stress what comes next:
“But the most important thing is to get the product right. I think Formula One is really at a crossroads because the world is changing rapidly. We see electrification, we see autonomous cars, we see the motoring world over the next 10 years is going to change enormously.
“I think Formula One needs to decide what is it. Is it a technology forum, or are there elements of technology there but fundamentally it’s about good, hard, fast racing? Escapism in many respects… because otherwise if you follow the technology route, we’d get rid of combustion engines, we’d probably even get rid of the driver.”
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I throw Roborace, the autonomous racing concept headed by former F1 / WEC driver Lucas di Grassi, into the conversation: Has Christian seen it?
“I haven’t, but I’ve heard of it. You know, will my children actually need to drive a car when they become of an age? So I think there’s some fundamental questions of which route the sport is going to go. And I think for me Formula E fills that technology route perfectly.
“Formula One needs to be true to its original principles of man and machine. It needs to be a combustion engine, it’s got to be loud, it’s got to be fast, it’s got to be exciting. There’s got to be a wow factor about it. The first time I saw a Ferrari V12 go screaming past at Woodcote corner, it made the hairs on [my] neck stand up.”
Christian’s vision is of the drivers doing things mere mortals would not even attempt, let alone fail at:
“You’ve got to have that feeling, when you see that car. And the cars are starting together. You go and stand at turn three or turn nine [at Catalunya], that’s seriously quick. But the problem is it doesn’t show. If you added in the noise again, then that’s another element. The problem is, the cost that it’s taking us to achieve that.”
All easier said than done, so how to do it?
“Having laid out that’s the criteria we want to achieve, and they’ve got one of the best guys in the business in Ross [Brawn, Liberty’s managing director of motorsport], and he’s assembling a good team to say ‘Give me that package’.
Cost is a big element of it, you’ve got to contain the costs. The costs are getting disproportionate to all of the teams in Formula 1, and the business model needs to be more sustainable and costs need to be controlled. It’s fairly crazy that top teams are knocking on the door of a thousand people just on the chassis side.
“I think in Ross they’ve got the right guy to spec that car out, given the guidelines from Liberty to say ‘This is what we want’.”
With Christian Edward Johnson Horner’s deep-rooted passion for F1 he knows that is what the fans want, too.
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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